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Catholicism in Nigeria: The Church stays strong while facing terrorism, persecution

Nigeria has become the world’s leading source of Christian martyrs, reportedly accounting for 90 percent of Christians killed for their faith worldwide in 2018.

Worshippers line up to receive ashes during Ash Wednesday Mass at a Catholic church in Abuja, Nigeria, Feb. 26, 2020. (CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters)

In some ways, Nigeria is a fine example of why many believe the “future of the Church is in Africa.” The continent’s largest nation (now more than 200 million people), with its fast-growing populace and strong religious tendencies, routinely exports priests to countries in need of clergymen.

On the other hand, Nigeria has become a nightmare for many Christians, particularly in the northern region. As extremist groups—motivated by a mix of religious hatreds and profit-seeking (whether by looting or kidnapping for ransom)—continue to indulge themselves, Nigeria has become the world’s leading source of Christian martyrs. In fact, according to the Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors, Nigeria alone accounted for 90 percent of Christians killed for their faith worldwide in the year 2018.

The main perpetrators have been the jihadist group Boko Haram along with semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen. Over the last five years, they have murdered more than 11,500 Christians and destroyed about 2,000 churches. The violence has displaced more than four million Christians.

“No news around shows the extent of horror,” says Father Joseph Kalu Oji, chaplain to the Igbo and Nigerian Catholic community in North Carolina.

It is strange to consider that Nigeria, the site of so much Christian suffering and persecution, is also a nation of such abundant Christian worship—the country now has the world’s sixth-highest Christian population and the highest number of Christians on a continent that has seen the faithful multiply exponentially.

Specific to the Catholic Church, there were one million worshipers in Africa a century ago. Now there are more than 170 million. Nigeria is at the forefront of sending priests to Western nations suffering from a clerical shortage. Such priests are part of the “reverse missionary” phenomenon, in which clergy from Africa and Asia seek to reinvigorate the Faith in the same Western nations that, during previous centuries, were so ardent in bringing Christianity to Africa and Asia.

Despite the dangerous reality that many seminarians in Nigeria must face, the country’s seminaries are thriving in a way that the Western world can no longer approach. In fact, Father Oji relates that these days, “Nigeria has the largest number of seminarians and ordains the largest number of priests each year throughout the globe.”

Catholicism first arrived in Nigeria in the 15th century, by way of Portuguese explorers. Their proselytizing did not find much success, however, and the faith had all but vanished by the 17th century. The Church began to re-establish itself in the mid-19th century.

Among the various ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Igbo people were especially receptive to this new wave of missionaries. Though the Igbo now account for about 20 percent of Nigeria’s general population, they comprise a far higher percentage of Nigeria’s Catholics (even in the US, there are many Igbo Catholic organizations). They are also over-represented among the ranks of clergy in Nigeria. Though most priests in Nigeria are native-born, there is a considerable, albeit diminishing, presence of Irish priests, who often teach in the seminaries. One sign of the Irish influence is that Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Nigeria.

In this other land of Patrick, a bit more than half of the country’s population is Muslim. Almost everyone else is Christian. According to CIA statistics, Catholics account for about one-fourth of Christians and about 11 percent of the entire population (some sources contend this statistic under-represents the Catholic proportion).

There are nine ecclesiastical provinces and a total of 44 Catholic dioceses in Nigeria, which obtained independence in 1960 from its British colonial master. Following a civil war and multiple dictatorships, Nigeria has maintained a democratic form of government for more than 20 years. The official language is English, but indigenous ethnic languages are frequently spoken. Mass in Nigeria can be celebrated in English or in a number of native languages (the nation has hundreds of different ethnic groups, though the three largest ones account for more than half of the overall population). Oji mentions that several parishes also offer a Latin Mass on a weekly or monthly basis.

Among the most celebrated figures in Nigerian Catholicism is Blessed Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi (1903-1964), a native Nigerian priest and Trappist monk much admired for his austerity and defense of mistreated persons. He was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Father Jude Chukwuneke, a priest of the Diocese of Nnewi, says the Church has a generally good relationship with most Christian denominations, though there is some rivalry with Pentecostals. Also, Father Oji mentions there is considerable competition between Catholics and Presbyterians pertaining to land and development projects. Any such tension, however, pales in comparison with the terror and carnage generated by Islamic extremism.

In such regions as southwestern Nigeria, Christians and Muslims can “live side by side,” says Chukwuneke. Though some incidences of violence have occurred in the southwestern region, the situation is far more volatile in northern Nigeria, and particularly so in the Northeast.

Chukwuneke knows such dangers well, as he himself is the survivor of a terrorist attack that occurred when he was in the North. “We have a lot of crises which have a faith-based root,” he acknowledges, adding that, “Things are not getting better given the kind of government we have.” He would like to see the international community become more assertive about combating the rampant abuse of Nigeria’s Christians.

Broadly speaking, the northern part of Nigeria is predominately Muslim and the southern part of Nigeria is predominately Christian. Though Christians hold the majority of local political power in most southern regions, political power on a national level “weighs heavily in favor of Muslims,” says Father Emmanuel Ojeifo, a priest of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja. He adds, “This is one of the sorest points of the federal government led by Muhammadu Buhari” (Nigeria’s President since 2015).

In Ojeifo’s view, the government has “not hidden its desire to run an Islamic State.” “Most of [President Buhari’s] federal appointments have gone to his Northern Fulani Islamic base,” he says. This type of arrangement has “given confidence to these extremist groups to carry out their nefarious activities.”

Though there are parts of the North with a tradition of Christians and Muslims coexisting, “the climate of relative peace has deteriorated rapidly since the onslaught of Boko Haram,” says Ojeifo.

In countries such as Pakistan, Christians often suffer the wrath of a violent mob after someone accuses them of blaspheming Islam. In Nigeria, however, such accusations are less common. Instead, the attackers typically come out of nowhere to commit their atrocities against Christians.

Aside from violent Islamic extremism, Ojeifo says that the biggest issues facing the Church in Nigeria are widespread poverty and unemployment, along with a “poor education and health infrastructure.”

Of course, such problems only intensify when people are attacked and forced to abandon their homes on a near-constant basis. Ojeifo would like to see the international community “promote awareness of the situation of Nigerian Christians,” assist Nigeria’s displaced Christians, and “put pressure on the Nigerian government to secure the lives of its citizens.”

On Ash Wednesday of this year, Nigerian bishops urged the faithful to wear black as a display of mourning and protest against the ongoing violence and persecution against Christians.

Meanwhile, there continues a “steady influx of largely uneducated and religiously radicalized Northern Muslim youths into communities and cities in the Southeast and the South,” the organization Genocide Watch reports.

“As things currently stand, there is not much to inspire hope in the country,” Ojeifo says. “We simply do not have a government that cares about the security and welfare of the people.”


(The author is much indebted to Father Kevin Okafor of the Philadelphia archdiocese, who helped the author obtain commentary from two priests serving inside Nigeria.)

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About Ray Cavanaugh 19 Articles
Ray Cavanaugh is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). He has written for such publications as The Guardian, USA Today, and the Washington Post.


    • Couldn’t agree more. Small wonder that democrats align themselves with moon god worshippers and against the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

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